2020 Positional Power Rankings: Introduction

Well, here we are. Welcome to the 2020 positional power rankings. As is tradition, over the next week and a half, we’ll be ranking every team by position as we inch closer Opening Day. This is always something of a funny exercise. You read FanGraphs regularly after all (thank you kindly), and are well-versed in the goings on of the offseason. You probably know that Gerrit Cole now plays in pinstripes and that Anthony Rendon calls Anaheim home and that Yasmani Grandal is a White Sox. But like so much else in 2020, COVID-19 has rendered an already odd thing stranger, harder. Sadder. In the season’s original timeline, we would have just enjoyed the Futures Game at Dodgers Stadium; I would be preparing to travel home from FanGraphs festivities in Los Angeles. Half a season’s worth of play would be in the books; in that brighter alternate reality, the All-Star game is tomorrow. Instead, the pandemic caused the season to stall out before it could get started. We witnessed a tense, nasty negotiation between the owners and the Players Association to resume play. The amateur draft was only five rounds. Most obviously and devastatingly, more than 135,000 Americans are dead.

How best to proceed with the practical vagaries and ethical quandaries of a season played against such a backdrop, I’m still unsure. I know that you still care about baseball, want to understand the who and how and what of this season. I know that I still care about the game, though I’m uncertain whether it is totally right to do so. We don’t know how much of the season we’ll get to see, just as we don’t know what the long-term consequences of COVID-19 will be for the players who contract it. It all amounts to an uneasy feeling, though it probably won’t be all bad. Strange and fraught as it is, I expect that Opening Day will feel at least a little good, that I will delight in finally seeing Cole take the mound for the Yankees, that I will thrill at remembering that Mike Moustakas plays for the Reds now, or that Mookie Betts – Mookie Freakin’ Betts! – now dons Dodger blue. And so here we are, launching the positional power rankings, hoping for good health and well-played games and for this 60-game sprint to mean something, for it to tell us something we didn’t know; to provide a welcome respite without distracting too much from the far more important task of keeping each other safe. We’ll try to find the right balance between grappling with the low lows of the pandemic and the heady highs of finally having our evenings and afternoons marked by the game’s familiar rhythms. We greatly appreciate you coming along for the ride as we do.

This post serves as an explainer for our approach to these rankings. If you’re new to the positional power rankings, I hope it helps to clarify how they are compiled and what you might expect from them. If you’re a FanGraphs stalwart, I hope it is a useful reminder of what we’re up to. If you have a bit of time, here is the introduction to last year’s series. You can use the handy nav widget at the top to get a sense of where things stood before Opening Day 2019.

Unlike a lot of site’s season previews, we don’t arrange ours by team or division. That is a perfectly good way to organize a season preview, but we see a few advantages to the way we do it. First, ranking teams by position allow us to cover a roster top to bottom, with stars, everyday staples, and role players alike receiving some amount of examination, while also placing those players (and the teams they play for) in their proper league-wide context. By doing it this way, you can easily see how teams stack up against each other, get a sense of the overall strength of a position across the game, and spot places where a well-deployed platoon may end up having a bigger impact than an everyday regular who is merely good. We think all of that context helps to create a richer understanding of the state of things and a clearer picture of the season ahead, even a weirdo season like this one.

And while we hope you find this way of viewing things useful, don’t worry. If you’re a fan of, say, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and want to view the rankings through the lens of that team, all you have to do is select the Diamondbacks from the “View by Team” dropdown that appears above the rankings in any given post and presto! Snakes on snakes on snakes.

We will have a post for each position, with starting pitchers and relievers divided into two posts a piece to allow us the many words we need to do baseball’s rotations and bullpens justice without taxing your patience. Each post will start with a brief summary of the position, and then proceed to rank each team’s group of players from the best all the way down to the worst based on projected WAR. Those WAR numbers are arrived at using a 50/50 blend of ZiPS and Steamer projections, and our manually maintained team depth charts (courtesy of Jason Martinez of RosterResource fame), which include playing time estimates for every player.

Of course, what a player is projected to do, and what he actually does, can diverge over the course of a season. Some players will exceed our expectations; others will lose innings or plate appearances to injury or under-performance. What you will see here are our projections coupled with our very informed best guesses about playing time. If you notice anything that strikes you as wonky in how we’ve allocated that playing time, please let us know. And obviously, we won’t be entirely right; baseball always has the potential for goofiness, and that possibility only increases over a 60-game stretch. For instance, we don’t know how the start and stop nature of the season’s ramp-up will affect players’ likelihood of injury, or if the universal designated hitter might arrest the decline of National League thumpers who ought to have been out of the field a while ago, or, most concerningly, how long a shadow the coronavirus might cast. Tweaks and pulls that might have cost players’ a fraction of their season could now spell more certain doom over a shorter schedule. We also don’t know who might manage to sparkle brightly or falter badly in 60 games. That doesn’t mean the projections are bad, per se, simply that there is less time for a shorter season’s inherent volatility to settle. After all, even Khris Davis, last season’s worst qualified position player by WAR, who posted just a 81 wRC+, managed a 60 game stretch in the season’s early going over which he was a hair better than a league-average hitter.

Beyond that, a few additional words of caution. First, it is important to remember that if a player is projected to play multiple positions, their WAR total in any given position’s post may strike you as low. That may be because the projections are down on him, but just as likely, it’s because the number you’re looking at only reflects the WAR projected at that specific position. To arrive at, say, Jeff McNeil’s total WAR projection, you’d need to add up his projections across all of the positions where we expect him to see playing time. Splitting up any given player’s projection by position is probably less likely to result in a “Hey, wait a minute” this year than it might have been in years past, both because the Cody Bellingers and Ketel Martes of the world happen to be a bit more firmly planted in one spot and because smaller WAR totals split across multiple positions are less visually striking, but it’s good to keep in mind anyhow. It is also important to remember that each player only gets one defensive projection, which remains the same across the different positions, though that number does take all projected positions into account.

Another thing folks tend to get irked by is the ordinal rankings themselves. That’s understandable. You want your team to do well. That’s why you’re a fan! Those other teams’ home nines? Screw ’em! But it is important to look at the magnitude of the differences between the rankings, as well as the rankings themselves. At the top of every post is a graph of each team’s projected WAR at the position to help better illustrate this, but sometimes the gaps between teams are small; a minor shift in production or playing time could mean moving up or down a couple of spots. At some positions, there may be quite a bit of difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams (otherwise known as “The Trout Effect”), but then much less between, say, No. 4 and No. 10, with some of the teams that come after bunched up around a similar projection. It’s not that where a team ranks is unimportant, it’s just that the distribution is important, too, and thinking about whether a team falls above or below average, and by how much, might be more useful than the ranking next to a team’s name.

Our first ranking will go up in short order. We’ll cover all of the position players this week. The pitchers, both starters and relievers, as well a summary post, will go up next week before Opening Day. We hope that it is illuminating and useful, both in understanding the season we might have and for recalling the signings, trades, and Tommy Johns that might have faded from memory as we’ve tried to navigate the last several months. Again, thank you for reading. And now, on to first base.

Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs and the co-host of Effectively Wild. Prior to joining FanGraphs, her work appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside. You can follow her on twitter @megrowler.

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Jimmy Dugan
3 years ago

” though it probably won’t not be all bad” – Intentional double negative?